Joho the Blog » larry lessig

June 3, 2011

Happy birthday, Larry!

One of the heroes of the Internet turns 50, and the people who love him (and there are a lot of us) thank him on this perfectly appropriate video:

Larry Lessig 50th Birthday Lip Sync Tribute from Daniel Jones on Vimeo.

Be the first to comment »

October 13, 2009

Larry Lessig: Beyond Transparency, and Net Triumphalism

Plenty is being written already trying to parse, understand, and come to terms with Larry Lessig’s article “Against Transparency” in the New Republic. Ethan Zuckerman does his usual outstanding job in clarifying ideas sympathetically. Transparency advocate Carl Malamud responds to Lessig. I presented my own “walkthrough” of the article. The New Republic has run Tim Wu‘s response, which agrees with Lessig in important ways. The New Republic has also run four other responses, including an excellent response from Ellen Miller and Michael Klein, founders of the Sunlight Foundation, the leading advocate for transparency. (My response is included in that set of four.) Aaron Swartz prefigured Larry’s argument in a piece he posted in April: “Transparency is bunk.” Plenty to chew on.

I want to briefly expand on the article’s import.

At the end, Larry expands his own argument to cover “Internet triumphalism.” Over the past couple of years, we’ve been seeing Net triumphalism waning, at least in the circles I travel in. Triumphalism is the notion that the war has been won. It’s over. Net triumphalism thinks that the new tech is in place, cannot be removed, and will change everything. It thus includes Net techno-determinism, i.e., the idea that the mere presence of the Net has predictable, determinate, and inevitable effects. Triumphalism adds: Yay!

Net triumphalism seemed more plausible back in the days when the demographics of the participants were pretty homogeneous, masking the role culture played in the homogeneous effects the Net was having. As regimes have censored the Net in ways the Net has not routed around, as Albert-Laszlo Barabasi and then Clay Shirky showed us that the Net tends towards the old patterns of unequal influence, as the mere networked presence of Howard Dean supporters failed to end GW Bush’s reign of error, naive Internet Triumphalism has become unsupportable. As Joe Trippi said, we need mouse pads and shoe leather. As Aaron Swartz says, we need narrative journalism as well as the Web. As Larry Lessig says, we need political reform as well as the Web. Indeed, as Aaron and Larry point out, the sunlight of transparency casts shadows as well.

I think “Against Transparency” misidentifies the source of the threat and undervalues the benefits of transparency-as-the-default, even as I agree with Larry’s cautions and his policy agenda. I nevertheless think it is one more marker in incremental extirpation of Internet triumphalism. Some of the pain reading his article causes old-time Net enthusiasts like me comes from that. It’s the right pain to feel, even if we disagree with the particularities of Larry’s article.

22 Comments »

October 12, 2009

Lessig’s “Against Transparency”: A walkthrough

I’ve been in a small round of email among friends, arguing over exactly what Larry Lessig means in his article in The New Republic titled “Against Transparency.” It is a challenging article for those of us who support government transparency, and Larry is obviously both influential and brilliant. So, I wanted to be sure that I was following his argument, since it is somewhat discursive.

Here’s what I think is a guide to the flow of the article, with links to the eleven Web pages across which the article is spread. (I’ve made judgment calls about where to divide topics that span a page.) The following is all my gloss and paraphrasing; let me know if you think I’ve gotten it wrong. Note that I intend this only as a guide to reading the article, not as a substitute. I’ve purposefully filed off the nuances, grace notes, and subtleties that make this a Larry Lessig article. (Note also that the italicized bits are not me interjecting; they’re the article’s own objections and qualifiers.)

Section I: Transparency is not necessarily good

[link] Sometimes, transparency that seems good is bad. (“Punch-Clock Campaign” example.)

Especially bad is “naked transparency,” which wants massive amounts of government data made available over the Internet. Naked transparency will “simply push any faith in our political system over the cliff.”

Qualifier: Most transparency projects are not bad.

[link] Transparency projects that track the flow of money and influence are particularly bad.

[link] A short history of transparency. (Brandeis)

To be helpful, information has to be incorporated into “complex chains of comprehension.”

Is that what’s happening with what naked transparency reveals? The supporters of transparency haven’t asked that question.

[link] Section II: Transparency leads to untruth

Mere correlations between politicians, donors, and votes does not tell us if the politician is corrupt.

Objection: But, revealing those correlations does no harm.

[link] Yes it does! (Hillary Clinton example.) Once the correlation gets in our head, we can’t get rid of it.

Objection: More information will chase out the bad info.

[link] No it won’t! Our attention spans are shot. You can see this everywhere. (Surveillance camera example.)

[link] Section III: How to respond

Can we get the good of transparency without the bad? No. (JAMA example.)

[link] The transparency argument is following a familiar pattern. Similarly, tech has enabled a “free content movement” that has disrupted the newspaper and music industries.

Let’s not follow that pattern in how we respond. We can’t fight the Net’s lessening of control over info.

[link] We need solutions that accept the Net’s effect. (William Fisher and Neil Netanel examples.)

[link] The solution is obvious. Transparency is inevitably going to raise false suspicions. We are prey to those suspicions because we already believe that politics is corrupt. Therefore, we need to eliminate political corruption.

To eliminate political corruption, we should enact the Fair Elections Now Act.

Caveat: The name of the act is misleading. It’s not about fairness.

Without this, we are doomed.

The transparency movement should support campaign finance reform, and should constantly remind us that transparency is not “just a big simple blessing.”

[link] Likewise for the rest of the Internet triumphalism.

16 Comments »


Switch to our mobile site